Nantucket Essays Nantucket Voices

The Battle Doesn’t End Unless You Surrender

by Robert P. Barsanti

Nobody gave us America. At best it is a trophy won from years of war. This war may involve guns and Redcoats, or marches and firehoses, or tear gas and pink hats, but we have always been at war with enemies foreign and domestic. The battles swing from Europe and Asia to Pennsylvania and Chicago, but those battles continue. The labor doesn’t end.

On Nantucket, the only war we see on the Fourth of July involves fire trucks and squirt guns. The bicycles get decorated with their best bunting, the blueberry pies are consumed, and the boats slowly and drunkenly shift out into the Sound for the best view of the fireworks. And yet, at barbecues and Yacht Club buffet tables, we fight over masks, over shots, over guns, over women’s bodies, and over whether the country can even continue.

It has always been thus.

When we believe in a peaceful past, we fool ourselves into silence, retreat, and despair. At no point in American history were we free from ugly and brutal fights. The lies we tell the children hide the deaths of union workers, slaves, and poor people. Nantucket, the Quaker “island of love” was spared most of the headlines, but no whaler would consider the below deck on a whale ship “peaceful.” Nor have we been spared the scourge of racism. That past has been happily buried under fresh sod and bordered with Belgian block.

Though hidden, the truth remains: the pleasure and peace of the Fourth of July has been hard won through labor. It should be celebrated. We live on an island, in a state, where the Union and the unions won. Everyone who got the day off should head to the beach and thank all of the fighters in the past who brought the wealth that we enjoy. That wealth might be a six-pack in a cooler or an acre under air on Monomoy, but it came as a prize of war. Nobody gave it to us. Our ancestors took it. If we sleep on it, those prizes can be stolen back.

The last few years should have woken the sleepers. Nobody can say, now, that “this is unbelievable.” We live in the shadow of the Supreme Court, in the stain of a corrupt presidency, and in the echoing call of bullhorns and drums. As the dogs will tell us, the fireworks are just the play-echoes of gunfire.

A number of years ago, I was asked by an administrator what my legacy would be. To be charitable, he assumed that I was thinking of a placid obituary in the I&M, where I had been a tough but fair teacher who always supported his students and was loved by the community. In these days, after more than 35 years of teaching, I think about the same question although it no longer puzzles me. I am proud of the fighters.

Dorothy Stover is one of those fighters. The battle over topless bathing does not seen consequential in light of the current headlines about the environment, guns, and abortion. The New York Post, The Globe, and NPR are snickering behind their baseball caps. The less shy deliver their darts and stings through letters, email, and TikTok to Dorothy Stover: “Hooters” by the Sound, perhaps. Yet, in spite of the locker room talk and the eye-rolls, the article passed town meeting. Following that, if it is approved by the Attorney General and pronounced legal, it will be the law of the sand.

I don’t know how many women will take advantage of this new freedom. Sunburn remains a challenge, as do sand, jellyfish, and dripping sticky ice cream cones. Nonetheless, topless bathing walks a small step towards equality. A woman will be able to choose what she wears or doesn’t wear, without regard to sniffling male prudery. Through mockery and sneering, Dorothy pushed an article through the town meeting and now it is here.

The victory isn’t permanent. Some member of my generation has, right now, drafted a “decency on the beach” by-law which will appear in town government. Such a by-law probably has square inches that must be covered and may even, as the old high school dress code had it, have a required length. Perhaps, even, a moral squad will walk Nobadeer with rulers and hand out tickets. The battle doesn’t end, unless you surrender.

When I finally hang up the bow ties, I hope my legacy will be filled with troublemakers and fighters. I hope that they upset the selectmen, annoy the administration, and afflict the comfortable. An older generation makes peace with its sins and its evasions. Having the anger and insouciance of youth, the students become not just adults, but troublemaking Americans. May they come to school committee meetings, union elections, and the U.S. Congress. And may they be (rhetorically) well armed. I never taught anyone to follow instructions.

On this “island of love” as the Quakers called it, the old folks in their silk and finery left us with the ideal of “labor.” Labor, to William Rotch and David Joy, was not the hard work of a whale ship or a farm. When you labored, you argued. Politely, respectfully, among equals but with force, you endeavored to bring people “to the light.” Elihu Coleman, young troublemaker and carpenter, argued the Quakers into abolishing slavery on island in 1733. Labor wasn’t easy then, nor is it now.

America was founded on labor. From every moment of its conception, to our present moment, we have been laboring for the truth. The labor does not yield immediate or permanent results. But as we stand around with our beers and our sparklers on this Fourth of July, let’s have a thought to the work and the fight that brought us to this moment. The labor will continue—there will be no rest from labor—but perhaps our children will stand on this same island fifty years from now and recognize the fights and the arguments that were won. Hopefully, none of them will be wearing tops.

Articles by Date from 2012